OAKLAND, Calif. For the first time since his first growth spurt, Chris Webber spent several months away from basketball last year, dealing with both a personal tragedy and the more mundane business of growing up.
Now that he's back where his NBA career began with the Golden State Warriors, he hopes the spurned fans who have booed him for well over a decade will understand he's no longer the petulant young superstar whose battle with coach Don Nelson crippled the franchise in 1994.
"I probably should have explained myself better, but I'm happy with the way my career turned out," said the five-time All-Star, who spent one season with Golden State before demanding a trade. "I never would have got to play with Sacramento or Washington on great teams. I never would have got to play for Coach again. I forgave a long time ago. Hopefully I've been forgiven a long time ago, and it's time to move on."
Webber wore a sharp suit Friday night as he watched the Warriors from the bench for the first time since signing with the club three days earlier. He hopes to be in uniform for their next game against Chicago on Thursday.
"It feels good, but (returning) is something I'd never expect," Webber said after making his way through an arena that's been wholly renovated since he won the Rookie of the Year award with Golden State nearly 14 years ago. "I think we all felt that way. It's a good feeling, but it's really surreal right now. ... I never thought in a million years. Never, not at all."
Detroit elected not to bring back Webber last summer, and he stopped thinking about basketball following the funeral of a longtime friend's mother. Though he claims his love for the game didn't wane, the break allowed him to consider the sport's importance in his larger life.
"I just wasn't in the mind-frame of coming back," Webber said. "I think I've used basketball to sacrifice other parts of my life."
He got serious about an NBA return two months ago, but didn't find a suitable suitor until Nelson put the Warriors into the chase. Webber saw an opportunity to return to the fast pace and ball movement used by the Kings during his most dominant NBA seasons, and the sides quickly closed a deal for the rest of the season.
Webber said he regrets his history at Golden State. The former No. 1 pick clashed with Nelson over his role and the coach's style, and neither man would back down until Webber was traded to Washington and Nelson was fired.
But Webber still has a few good memories of his one season in the Warriors' banal, bright-blue old uniforms. He spoke warmly of the Oakland crowds that have regularly booed him ever since he helped Nelson to implode the franchise, and Webber referenced former teammates Latrell Sprewell, Mark Price and even Chris Mullin, now the Warriors' top executive.
"It's (nearly) 15 years ago, man," Webber said with his usual grin. "Hopefully time has gone by and people realize it was 15 years ago, but you have to earn the fans' trust. It was a great feeling getting booed here when I played at Sacramento, because with booing is respect. You don't boo a guy that can't play."
The Warriors found a clever way to make sure Webber wouldn't be booed in his first game back in Oakland. They showed a video montage of Webber's highlights from his season with Golden State on a split screen with a montage of Jason Richardson, the beloved former Warriors guard who returned to Oakland for the first time since he was traded to Charlotte last summer. The cheers for J-Rich drowned out a few scattered boos for C-Webb.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good to come back to a place where it didn't end right," Webber said.
Even during his days just up the I-80 in Sacramento, Webber remained infatuated with Oakland and its tireless love for the Warriors, who endured 12 consecutive losing seasons after Webber and Nelson departed. Golden State returned to the playoffs last year when Nelson returned, and Webber said he was on the phone with former Sacramento teammate Matt Barnes before every postseason game, soaking in the electric atmosphere in the Bay Area by proxy.
Nelson also buried his differences with Webber long ago. The veteran coach stopped his usual pregame news conference to greet Mayce Webber, his once-and-future power forward's father.
"It's a piece to try to improve our team," said Nelson, who put Webber through his first practice with the Warriors on Thursday. "Although he probably doesn't move as well now, he knows every situation. He's just where he's supposed to be at all times. ... I'm even still running some of the same (plays) I ran back then. I don't know if he remembers them."